A program that asks pedestrians to help homeless people in Ann Arbor by refusing to hand out money is catching on at area businesses and has already aided several panhandlers.

Paul Wong
Antonio Jose Williams, who is homeless, stands on State Street last night. He has been in Ann Arbor for 10 years. <br><br>DAVID KATZ/Daily

Mayor John Hieftje”s Downtown Marketing Task Force and a number of merchants” associations of Ann Arbor are participating in “Loose Change for Real Change,” a program designed to take panhandlers with substance abuse problems off the street and into treatment.

“There are some people who make panhandling their occupation,” Hieftje said. “They live with relatives or live in apartments paid by their Social Security checks. Some of them reportedly make up to $25,000 per year.”

Jim Kosteva, the University”s director of community relations, said the number of people on the streets in Ann Arbor has noticeably increased in the past 18 months, causing merchants and residents to look for a way to decrease panhandling activity and get the people who need help with their substance abuse problems into treatment.

The Loose Change for Real Change program, which has been an idea of concerned citizens for years but did not get started until September, uses the money people would normally give to aggressive panhandlers to pay for their rehabilitation.

The program encourages people to deposit their loose change in collection boxes at a number of merchants in the downtown, State Street and Kerrytown areas instead of giving money to panhandlers.

The rehabilitation programs funded by the loose change take place at Dawn Farm at 502 West Huron St., a local nonprofit agency that helps people with drug and alcohol problems and provides housing assistance.

The program”s downtown street outreach worker is Charles Coleman, a self-described former alcohol and drug addict and panhandler who now walks the streets of Ann Arbor in search of people who could benefit from the services of Dawn Farm.

Coleman said the money students and other pedestrians give to panhandlers is often used to support drug habits and that giving panhandlers money is actually hurting them.

“Word gets around that Ann Arbor is a gold mine (for handouts) and people come on buses to take advantage of students” generosity to buy drugs and alcohol,” Coleman said. “As long as we continue to give the money, people are not going to change.”

When Coleman spoke to students at the Michigan Student Assembly meeting Tuesday night, he encouraged them to either deposit their change in the boxes located inside businesses or simply not give money to panhandlers.

“There is no program like this in the country,” Coleman said. “We have been so successful that already I was able to take two homeless people into treatment my goal is to help two people a month from now on.”

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